Theatre Critic and Journalist

Keeping Work-in-Progress Theatre up to Scratch

Keeping Work-in-Progress Theatre up to Scratch

Published on the Guardian Theatre Blog, 15.09.2009

Audiences are always collaborators. Without somebody watching, theatre can be no more than a faraway tree falling unheard. It needs us in order to function fully. Traditionally, of course, we are introduced at the end of the process and made complicit only through our presence as investing consumers of a finished product. We are the final, secret ingredient that changes everything.

In the past decade, however, theatres and theatre-makers have increasingly asked for a more active collaboration. With the advent of scratch culture, there has emerged a reliance upon audience opinion, as practitioners turn to us for feedback on unfinished or embryonic work.

Depending on the stage at which we are invited into the laboratory, our role as test-audience differs enormously. Previews, for example, cast us simply as audience. We are asked to behave as we would in relation to a finished production (if such a phrase can be meaningful), our reactions are gauged and the work fine-tuned accordingly. For work-in-progress or scratch performances, however, artists seek more than an immediate response. We are engaged critically, even creatively; asked to reflect on what we felt worked, what didn’t and what’s missing.

This elevation of audiences has been both celebrated and criticised in equal measure. Some have argued that scratch culture allows artists a safe space to experiment while providing direct access to the results of that experimentation. Others have denigrated it as representative of an artistic culture lacking in confidence, always testing the water and pandering slavishly to the tastes of its audience. For me, perched firmly on the fence, it can be both at once.

At this year’s Edinburgh fringe, work-in-progress seemed to draw only low-level grumblings, perhaps the result of the bonhomie generated by Forest Fringe. Young company Dancing Brick, themselves proponents of BAC’s development ladder, wrote on their blog: “When nothing is finished, nothing valued, it is impossible to attack, which is why, in a very real sense, there is more risk in a work, than there is in a work-in-progress.” The implication being that the “in-progress” tag has become a shield behind which to hide.

Isn’t the director’s role partly to serve as the audience’s representative in the rehearsal room, seeing the work through unbiased eyes? Well, yes, but the presence of an audience changes a work, so there is surely benefit in such trial outings. In fact, when work is structured so as to hinge on some form of audience participation, it begins to look like a necessity.

Scratch is a different mode, however. It is, as the name suggests, a preliminary exploration born from nothing, intended only to scratch surfaces. Where work-in-progress is an imprecise proposition, scratch is an initial postulation. It seeks to prick an audience’s interest. Like previews, it uses them as audience rather than advisors, asking only if they are intrigued by something new, if they want to see more.

To work best, scratch must be held disposable. Artists must try something bold, something new, something unexpected and toss it aside should it prove tedious. For this reason, Rules and Regs, in which artists are forced out of their comfortable creative strategies, is the most important element of BAC’s Scratch festival. In keeping with the rest of the festival, Rules and Regs makes no promises, either to artists or audiences, but it does ensure genuine novelty and risk, which, I believe, should be at the very heart of scratch work. After all, why trial something when you’re sure it will succeed?

Scratch must be celebrated as providing an output for impulses. However, once it has unearthed something worth developing, the onus must be on the artist rather than the audience; to remain in progress for too long is, as Dancing Brick suggest, to rid the work of real risk.

Photograph: Nic Green

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